A few hours ago, Daniel Korski suggested on Global Dashboard that the United Nations lied about the shelling of one of its schools – with the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, playing a part in disseminating the falsehood in a statement in which he condemned this and two similar attacks as ‘unacceptable’.
Like Daniel, I don’t fully understand what happened, or why – but have been trying to track how the story developed. It appears that re-investigation of the attack was conducted by Patrick Martin, from the Canadian Globe and Mail. His story was headlined “account of the Israeli story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”
Martin interviewed eyewitnesses who told him that while “a few people were injured from shrapnel landing inside the white-and-blue-walled UNRWA compound, no one in the compound was killed.” No shell landed in the schoolyard itself, he writes, but 43 people were killed by three shells in the street outside.
Martin’s report continues:
The teacher who was in the compound at the time of the shelling says he heard three loud blasts, one after the other, then a lot of screaming. “I ran in the direction of the screaming [inside the compound],” he said. “I could see some of the people had been injured, cut. I picked up one girl who was bleeding by her eye, and ran out on the street to get help. But when I got outside, it was crazy hell. There were bodies everywhere, people dead, injured, flesh everywhere.”
The teacher, who refused to give his name because he said UNRWA had told the staff not to talk to the news media, was adamant: “Inside [the compound] there were 12 injured, but there were no dead.”
“Three of my students were killed,” he said. “But they were all outside.”
Hazem Balousha, who runs an auto-body shop across the road from the UNRWA school, was down the street, just out of range of the shrapnel, when the three shells hit. He showed a reporter where they landed: one to the right of his shop, one to the left, and one right in front.
“There were only three,” he said. “They were all out here on the road.”
This account seems broadly consistent with the UN News Centre report that Daniel links to (and which contains Ban’s condemnation). In it John Ging is reported as saying that “some 30 people were killed and 55 others injured, five of them critically, when three artillery shells landed at the perimeter of a school, which usually serves as a girls’ preparatory school, in the Jabaliya refugee camp.”
Martin argues that the United Nations’ description of the attack was ambiguous and that UN agencies failed to correct “widespread news reports of the deaths in the school.” Israeli reports also seem to have been confused, however, with Mark Regev, the Israeli PM’s spokesman telling the media that (i) there was hostile fire from the school; (ii) the explosion that resulted was “out of proportion to the ordnance we used.” (e.g. that the school had been booby trapped).
One of the most disturbing stories to emerge during Israel’s recent incursion in Gaza was Israeli shelling of a UN school. This is how Reuters described it:
Israeli shelling killed more than 40 Palestinians on Tuesday at a U.N. school where civilians had taken shelter, medical officials said.
The BBC reported that
. . .at least 40 people were killed and 55 injured when Israeli artillery shells landed outside a United Nations-run school in Gaza, UN officials have said.
But though the BBC story placed the shell outside the school, UN officials have now set the record straight. As Haaretz reports, Maxwell Gaylord, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Jerusalem, clarified that the IDF mortar shells fell in the street near the compound, and not on the compound itself.
UNRWA said that the source of the mistaken story had originated “with a separate branch of the United Nations.” Unfortunately, this branch seems to have pretty good access to the UN Secretary-General’s office, because on 6 January 2009 Ban Ki-Moon himself spoke out against Israel’s “totally unacceptable” attacks against what the UN’s own News Centre called “three clearly-marked United Nations schools, where civilians were seeking refuge from the ongoing conflict in Gaza”.
Who knows what actually happened. The fog of war was deliberately made thicker by both the IDF and Hamas. It is clear many people, including civilians, died in Gaza. But the UN school story is beginning to look like the Jenin “massacre” story from 2002. Then the Palestinian news agency Wafa was reporting that Israel had committed the “massacre of the 21st century” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. “Medical sources” informed Wafa of “hundreds of martyrs.” Reports of the supposed Israeli atrocities in Jenin were spread by Palestinian sources on CNN and elsewhere.
But this turned out to be a lie. There was a battle in Jenin. But the “hundreds” of martyrs were an invention. The death toll was 56 Palestinians, the majority of them combatants, and 23 Israeli soldiers. By then, however, the story had served its purpose, much the same as the UN school story did.
In war, information is a weapon. But not one usually used by the UN.
A few days ago, I did a post on the UK government’s current horizon scanning exercise – part of the process leading up to its second National Security Strategy – in which I suggested that “the really stand-out risk that barely got a mention in the events I attended was the possibility that serious erosion of states’ capacity and legitimacy [will undermine] their ability to respond to all the global trends that we were discussing”.
As regular readers will know, that observation comes straight out of the writings of ‘fourth generation warfare’ theorists like William Lind, Martin van Creveld and John Robb. But what may come as more of a surprise is the interesting revelation that Kaiser Wilhelm II made a similar point yesterday in his birthday conversation with Lind*:
“My generation of kings and emperors were fixated on the age-old contest between dynasties. Would the houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern defeat those of Romanoff and Savoy or the other way around? We could not see the paradigm shift welling up all around us, the onward rush of democracy and equality and socialism and all the rest of that garbage. What we needed was an alliance of all monarchies against democracy. Instead we wiped each other out, putting the levellers in charge everywhere, to the world’s ruin.”
“Does that hold any lessons for our time?”, I asked.
“From Olympus, the picture could not be more clear,” His Majesty replied. “As we were mesmerized by dynastic quarrels, so your politicians cannot see beyond the state. They think only of states in conflict. Will America be threatened by China? Should India go to war with Pakistan? Is Iran a danger to Israel? They cannot see that states are now all in the same, sinking boat, just as all the dynasties were in 1914.”
“What should states then do?”, I enquired.
“Form an alliance of all states against non-state forces, what you call the Fourth Generation,” the Kaiser answered. “The hour is late, and the state system itself has grown fragile. That is the lesson of America’s quixotic war in Iraq. You destroyed the state there, and now no one can recreate it. That is what will happen almost everywhere when states fight other states. But none of your leaders can see it, because they, too, are time-blinded. It is the human condition.”
* Since you ask: in addition to being one of the top experts around on counter-insurgency and fourth generation warfare, William Lind is also an ardent Prussian monarchist. Consequently, he marks the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II (“my reporting senior and lawful sovereign”) with a column each year in which he records a conversation with that leader’s ghost. Previous editions are highly recommended – e.g. here and here.
This holiday I read Alpha Dogs, the story of the Sawyer Miller Group, a political consultancy firm that pioneered international electioneering. Long before Karl Rove and James Carville became household names, Scott Miller and David Sawyer were peddling the techniques and snake oil of American electioneering to dictators and reformers throughout the world. Before it dissolved in 1991, the company steered Corazon Aquino to power in the Philippines, helped Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, and backed Israel’s Shimon Peres.
What advice, I thought, would the Sawyer Miller Group give if it was hired by Hamid Karzai? How would it steer the career of this moderate, one-term president who is seeking re-election but is haemorrhaging both international and local support and has failed to deliver much of what his voters — especially his core Pashtun constituency in the south and east — expected?
In figuring out what Sawyer Miller would say, it may be worthwhile recalling what they told Kevin White, the Mayor of Boston, when he looked as though he was headed for defeat in the late 1970s: people don’t like you, but they trust you to get the job done. Make the election about competence, not charisma.
Voters don’t like Karzai anymore, but some still approve of his record. Unfortunately, they are concentrated in the northeastern, northwestern and eastern parts of the country. In Karzai’s base, among Pashtuns in the southeast, little more than half of respondents (56%) told the Asian Foundation the government is doing a good job. So Candidate Karzai, Sawyer Miller would probably say, needs to focus on southerners.
This means getting southerners to vote and then, doing more for them — even to the point of discrimination. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to be accused of favouring southern Pashtuns, the Sawyer Miller consultant might say. True, it might alienate Tajiks, and Uzbeks, the old Northern Alliance, but it is probably safe to assume that the U.S will ensure they do not try to break up the country, even if they make loud noises. So it should be smooth sailing.
But here’s the catch: southerners reveals a clear preference for resolving issues at the community level and are more distrustful of the Kabul government. That may not be surprising with two-thirds telling pollsters their elected representatives are unresponsive. So perhaps Candidate Karzai should launch initiatives aimed at greater decentralisation for the south and compel friendly MPs to organise weekly “town-hall meetings”. Karzai might also persuaded to float the idea of directly-elected governors too. (more…)